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    Diversity on Company Boards Could Affect How the Next Sexual Abuse Case Is Handled

    By Andrea Shorter


    The recent reports of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s series of sexual assaults against women have put the issue of powerful male predatory conduct back into the national spotlight. An ever-widening constellation of Weinstein-produced powerhouse A-list Oscar-winning stars, including Meryl Streep, Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow, and George Clooney, is now stepping forward and over each other to denounce his offenses and to confirm or deny their personal awareness of Weinstein’s apparently decades-long rumored “old school casting couch” manners of abuse. Questions concerning who knew what and for how long, and how Weinstein was able to behave as he did for decades, remain largely unanswered, troublesome and all too familiar.

    Bill Cosby (by the way—who is it that is still watching The Cosby Show reruns on TV One? Really?), the late Fox Media chief Roger Ailes (and mentor to POTUS President Donald “Grab ‘em by the p#$%y” Trump), and Harvey Weinstein collectively are responsible for at least 120 reported incidents of sexual assault. Yes, just one victim is enough. Still, you cannot deny that 120 is a grossly staggering number of known survivors of four mega-mogul powerhouse predators.

    What makes men of wealth, power, and acclaim think it is okay to sexually harass and assault women? I will leave it to qualified mental health professionals to assess, but it appears safe to presume that there is clearly something terribly askew about whatever goes on in their minds and trousers for them to engage in—as a privilege, a right, or victorious spoil of their status and achievements—repeated assaults upon women.

    The complicity of associates, bro-squads, and under-staff might be a factor. These are individuals whose own livelihoods, status, or promise of reward are tied to the success and power of exceptionally privileged masters of their own universes. As a result, they could give a pass to clearly abusive conduct in exchange for not being let go, retaliated against, or themselves made a victim of other forms of abuse by the predator. Arsenals of in-house PR machinery serving entertainment, media, political, tech, and sports titans help to ward off any threat to their own status by often demeaning the status of accusers or victims.

    No matter the implications, the sum of complicity serves to enable and reinforce each of the predator’s self-constructed delusion that they can, and will, get away with it—at least until someone does speak up.

    When that someone speaks up and dares to pull back the curtain to expose the cruel offenses, we have become painfully prone to revisit such episodes through queasy tabloid spectacles. A just moments ago thought-to-be-impenetrable fortress can quickly tumble like a house of cards.  While the drama of it all might capture the imagination of cursory onlookers, the real impact of these offensives can be more far reaching than meets the eye.

    Of course, not all who are employed by, or are associated with, the empires led by such persons are aware, least of all complicit, with the gross misconduct. In the case of large companies, there are likely to be far more innocent employees who are indirectly or directly injured. When company stocks fall, contracts dry up, and bad publicity as well as other types of regressive responses to offensive liabilities ensue, these can present very real consequences for all concerned.

    In Harvey Weinstein’s case, he was eventually fired by a small, close-knit Board of Directors of the very company he created with his brother. It is hard to believe that the Weinstein Company board members did not know of the multiple incidents of sexual assaults and the pursuant settlements incurred by Weinstein. In fact, it has been confirmed as improbable by Weinstein’s attorney, who stated that the Board was consulted in an assault settlement. After all, it is very small Board. According to S&P Global/Bloomberg INSIDERS on Board Members as of October 12, the Weinstein Company had a small, 4-member board of cisgender men—including Harvey and Robert Weinstein—but no people of color and no women.

    Diversity on boards of directors of companies and corporations matters. When women, people of color, and LGBT people are on boards, companies’ accountability to their employees, shareholders, consumers and the public is enhanced.

    While it might seem a stretch in reason to some, I cannot help but wonder if there had been at least one woman on that board, policies concerning sexual misconduct, harassment, or assault might have made some difference in response to Weinstein’s repeated offenses. It could be wishful thinking for a variety of reasons—how the company started, who started it, it’s an entertainment industry company, etc.—but it does warrant some pause.

    According to Catalyst, a leading non-profit that works to increase the representation of women in the workplace as well as on boards of directors, women hold 15 percent of company board seats globally, with only 4 percent of company board chair positions held by women. Some debate exists over the correlation between women and minority presence on boards and their impact on overall diversity and inclusion, as well as how they affect personnel conduct policies within a company. Arguably, however, their presences create slow, but eventually impactful, changes in company cultural climate, including intolerance of cultural and gender offensive behaviors.

    At the very least, it is significant to note that certain consumer-driven sectors with at least three or more women on boards can create a “critical mass” of women. These more gender-balanced boards can change boardroom dynamics, and thus substantially “enhances the likelihood that women’s voices and ideas can be heard.”

    To those critical ends, efforts like the Women Lead Initiative present forums to engage men and women in national conversations about increasing board diversity. One such forum, the 2020 Women on Boards Annual Breakfast, will be held in San Francisco on November 15 at the Westin St. Francis Hotel. The past 20 years have seen significant development regarding various forums and organizations, such as Out & Equal Workplace Advocates. They work toward similar goals of creating LGBT diversity and inclusion, not only in the workplace, but also on boards of directors. 

    No one can guarantee that a more diverse board of directors would have prevented a Harvey Weinstein from serial sexual assault against women. What gender, LGBT and racial diversity could have done was increase the probability of more voices and experiences, which would have at least spoken up against entitlement and abuse, and held Weinstein or other agents of the organization accountable for probably known or suspected harmful offenses much sooner.

    Andrea Shorter is President of the historic San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women. She is a longtime advocate for criminal and juvenile justice reform, voter rights, and marriage equality. A co-founder of the Bayard Rustin LGBT Coalition, she was a 2009 David Bohnett LGBT Leadership Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.